Special Effects From Open Flash

Copyright 1989, Tom R. Halfhill


Don't you wish you had the fancy darkroom equipment required to make the kind of photographs seen on these pages?

Don't get jealous. Actually, you don't need any fancy darkroom equipment—or even a darkroom. Nor do you need a camera with multiple-exposure capability, because these photographs are not multiple exposures in the ordinary sense. In fact, all you need are a few basics: a camera, a tripod, a cable release, a flash unit, a flashlight, and perhaps a few friends and some props. You'll also need a very dark outdoors location, such as the beach where these photos were taken. This is an ideal way to have fun on your summer vacation—and come home with some unique photographs, too.

What's the secret? All of the photographs accompanying this article were made with time exposures and a simple technique called open flash. Time exposures certainly aren't anything new, and neither is open flash. It's really a very old technique that dates back to the days before cameras had shutters that could synchronize with flashbulbs.

The photographer of yore would set up his bulky wooden camera on a tripod, aim at a rigidly posed subject, and then open the shutter as if making a time exposure (or uncover the lens, in the days before shutters). After firing off the flash—typically a tray of magnesium powder—he would close the shutter or cover up the lens. Emulsions and lenses were so slow in those days that the bright flash, not the relatively weak existing light, recorded the subject on the film or plate.

Nowadays we have fast films, fast lenses, and flash-synchronized shutters, so we don't need open flash—at least not for the reasons our ancestors did. Instead, we can apply the technique to making unusual, creative photographs that would be very difficult to duplicate any other way.

Simple Equipment

Before discussing how these "trick photos" were made, let's review in more detail exactly what equipment you'll need.

Almost any camera will do, as long as it has a shutter-speed control marked "B" or "T." B stands for Bulb, and it's intended for making long time exposures. When you set the camera on B and press the shutter release, the shutter opens and stays open, until you let go of the shutter release. Almost any good camera with manual or manual-override control has a B setting.

The T setting is a lot less common on modern cameras. T stands for Time, and it works like Bulb, except that you don't have to hold down the shutter button to keep the shutter open. Instead, you press and release the shutter button once to open the shutter, then press and release it again to close the shutter. This is much more convenient when making long exposures, since you don't have to stand around with your finger on the button. Your camera probably doesn't have a T setting, but there's a simple way around it.

What you need is a locking cable release. This looks like any other mechanical cable release, except that it has a small screw near the plunger button. With the camera set on B, you simply press the cable release to open the shutter, then tighten down the screw. This locks the cable—and therefore the shutter—in the open position, until you loosen the screw. If you have a modern, electronic camera that lacks a socket for a mechanical cable release, you'll have to buy an electronic release made specifically for your camera. Most electronic releases have some provision for locking open the shutter like a mechanical release.

The next accessories you'll need are a tripod and a flash unit. Any tripod will work, but the flash must have some means of firing without tripping the camera's shutter. Most flash units have a test button, for example. The best kind of flash to use is a nondedicated unit that relies on its own sensor, not the camera's electronics, to regulate exposures. (The photos seen here were made with a 15-year-old Vivitar 273.) If you have a modern, dedicated electronic flash that depends heavily on the camera's inboard computer, you may have to switch it on manual or hunt up an old-fashioned flash unit.

The final accessories you'll need won't be found in your camera closet. Gather together a few friends, some flashlights, plus any props you happen to think of, and set off for the darkest outdoor area you can find. Urban dwellers will probably have to drive to the countryside to escape the bright lights of the big city. Even in the suburbs, nearby streetlights and the headlights of passing cars are likely to interfere with your long exposures. The best place by far is a lonely stretch of beach, because you can aim your camera toward the water to avoid the ubiquitous glow of civilization.

One thing you don't have to worry about is moonlight and starlight. Even on a clear night, a full moon and the sparkle of the Milky Way shouldn't pose a problem. (If you do choose the beach for these pictures, it's a good idea to put a filter on the lens to protect it from salt spray, and to wrap plastic bags around the feet of your tripod to protect them from the sand.)

Staging the Shot

Begin by placing your camera on the tripod, setting the shutter on B, and attaching the cable release. A normal lens works fine, though I prefer a wide-angle, such as the 35mm used for the photos shown here. I aim the camera toward an open area and focus at about 10 or 15 feet. Because it's too dark to see much of anything through the viewfinder, you must mark the ground in some way to define the limits of the area that the lens sees. At the beach, I draw lines in the sand. In a meadow, twigs might serve the same purpose. To establish these limits, either arrive shortly before the sun sets, or peer through the viewfinder while someone with a flashlight moves across the field of view.

Now the fun starts. Lock open the shutter and "stage" your picture in front of the camera. Since for all practical purposes there is no existing light, the only images that will be recorded on film are those which you illuminate with your flash unit or flashlight. In fact, any light source can be pressed into service—torches, sparklers, even cigarettes.

Take a look at photo #1, which shows three views of the same person. This is the simplest kind of open-flash multiple exposure you can make. The subject assumed three different poses, and each pose was captured with a separate "pop" from the flash. Since the shutter is locked open, there's no need to synchronize the flash with the shutter, so the flash unit wasn't even connected to the camera. Instead, it was hand-held a few feet away, aimed directly at the subject, and manually fired with the test button. The flash unit's built-in sensor automatically adjusted the flash duration for the proper exposure.

A simple example of multiple exposure with open flash: "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil."

Remember that proper flash exposure is determined by the flash-to-subject distance, not the camera-to-subject distance. You set the lens aperture to the f/stop required by the flash unit's automatic mode, as usual, but the flash can be fired from any distance within its automatic range. If you're using a dedicated flash that relies on the camera's electronics to determine flash exposure, you may have to switch over to manual mode and calculate your flash exposures the old-fashioned way.

You can make as many multiple exposures as you want with this technique, firing one "pop" per pose, as long as the individual poses don't overlap. (Or, for a special effect, you can let them overlap on purpose.) When you're done, just close the shutter. The only problem you might encounter is if there's something within the field of view that's exposed to all of the pops—such as the ground. In photo #1, the sandy foreground was illuminated by three pops and was therefore two stops overexposed. I corrected this when making the prints, but if you don't make your own prints, you can lower the tripod to eliminate as much of the foreground as possible.

Painting With Light

For even more interesting effects, try combining open flash with a time exposure. Photo #2, which shows a row of people in the background and one person in the foreground, is a good example. Everyone in the picture is actually the same person. To make this photograph, the background was created first with a series of time exposures, followed by an open flash to illuminate the foreground figure.

You can create weird effects by combining open flash with carefully planned time exposures.

The entire process took several minutes. To begin, the subject dressed up in a white smock (a prop we happened to bring) and assumed his first pose, standing rigidly at the extreme left edge of the frame. While the shutter was locked open, I "painted" him with light from head to toe for about 15 seconds. I didn't have a light meter sensitive enough to read the correct exposure, so the 15 seconds was an educated guess that ended up about right. (My light source was a very powerful spotlight used for scuba diving; an ordinary flashlight would have required more time.) After painting him, I switched off the light, and he moved one step sideways to his next position. I then switched on the light and painted him again.

This tedious process was repeated until the subject reached the far right edge of the frame. Then, for the final touch, he stepped up to the foreground, and I fired a single pop from the flash before closing the shutter.

(Incidentally, this picture shows why an absolutely dark location is so important. Since the shutter was open for nearly ten minutes, the slightest amount of unwanted light trickling into the scene would have overexposed the ground.)

Another fascinating variation of the "painting with light" technique is to use a light source to create an image, rather than to merely expose an image. Take a look at photo #3. Many people, even some photographers, have assumed that this picture is a darkroom trick, but it's not. The word "STOP" was painted on the film with a three-cell flashlight while the shutter was locked open.

Another open-flash technique is painting with light.

Aiming the flashlight directly at the lens, I painted one letter at a time, starting with the "S." To keep the letters from flowing into each other, I switched off the flashlight at the end of each stroke. (And since I was facing the camera, I had to form each letter backwards, and move from right to left.) To finish the picture, I put down the flashlight, assumed my prearranged pose, and had someone pop the flash.

How did I arrange it so that my outstretched hands coincided exactly with the "O," as if I were painting the word in mid-air? I didn't! It was pure luck. But that's one of the best things about this technique. No matter how carefully you plan a picture, you never know for sure how it's going to look until you see the results. This element of surprise—plus the unlimited variety of tricks you can play with different kinds of light sources, subjects, costumes, films, colored gels, and filters—makes the open-flash technique a never-ending source of photographic creativity and fun.

MODEL CREDITS: Art Beall, Jeff Levenderis, and the author.


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